[23 January 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It just sounds like the way Spalding Gray would die. His would not be a life finished by old age, or the standard natural causes. No, Gray’s existence was fated to end like most of his monologues—with a kind of closure, but with so much more life left unexplored. Anyone who’s familiar with the peculiar performance artist/actor knows that his onstage stories attempted to mine epic emotions within the smallest of human moments. Whether it was filming The Killing Fields (Swimming to Cambodia), writing his one and only novel, Impossible Vacation (as described in Monster in a Box), or dealing with a potentially debilitating eye disease (Gray’s Anatomy), Gray wasn’t out to try and explain the purpose of being or answer the larger philosophical questions. All he wanted was to make sense out of the funny little muddle that was his world. Apparently, he fell short.
It’s been over a year since Gray committed suicide, his body washing up in New York’s East River. As part of the huge healing process necessary for his family and friends we are presented with Life Interrupted, an “unfinished” work by the dear departed. Not knowing its conception or creation, one would assume this to be a career ending entry, something to tie up the loose ends in Gray’s artistic catalog while giving fans and the unfamiliar a chance to revel in his final musings. Sadly, that is only part of the picture painted here. Gray does get a few pages to explain his 2001 car accident (the title piece), an event while on vacation in Ireland that lead to a deepening of his already tenuous depression. There is also a short snippet about his family (The Anniversary) and a look at the metropolis he loved to love—and hate (Dear New York City>).
Yet the 50 some odd sides that make up this material do not constitute the bulk of the book’s 256 pages. Instead, longtime friend and writer Francine Prose gets a protracted introduction, and several of Gray’s intimates and well wishers, most of them famous in their own right, eulogize the man as part of a closing collection of elegies and celebrations. In essence, what we have here is a full funeral in print form. Ms. Prose prepares the wake, we sit shiva as Gray gets the last word, and as he’s buried in our memory, a collection of his contemporaries finds ways to wax poetic and prosaic about their much admired and missed associate. All in all, very stoic, classy, and serene—which means it misses what made Gray so great in the first place.
There is nothing wrong with celebrating a writer with words—it’s a standard in the realm of the scribe. But Spalding Gray was more than just a collection of thoughts. It was the way he presented those ideas, the way he connected with audiences and drew them into his imaginary world that really made the difference. Reading his monologues (there are several collections out there, from film transcripts to the highly recommended Sex and Death to Age 14) you can just hear his cooling New England edge, the spry speaking style that distinguished his efforts from those of his peers. Like radio man Paul Harvey, Gray had control and cadence in how he spoke, bringing life both obvious and hidden to his otherwise well-chosen words. Anyone who wanted to understand how performance could be art just needed to see Gray live. One minute inside his vocal volleys and you could literally feel dead synapses re-firing.
Sadly, none of that is here—not in the efforts of other writers, not in Ms. Prose’s words. For her, Gray is a misunderstood man who needed re-explaining one more time. As for the individuals who stand to sing his praises, they too act as if Gray was an unknown quantity that required some defense of his otherwise indefensible actions. This is perhaps the main reason why Gray’s words feel like cameos in his own collection. He was never a man to shy away from the insanity that drove his family. It was the basis for Monster in a Box, and his interesting novel Impossible Vacation. The man was literally, and literarily, an open book. There was no need to spend hundreds of pages protecting his public. They knew this side existed the entire time—and many marveled that it hadn’t conquered him before.
Then there is Gray’s mini-monologue itself. Life Interrupted walks us through that fateful night when an ill-timed trip to a local restaurant lead to a near fatal collision between a delivery truck and the vehicle in which Gray was a passenger. He has a ball deconstructing the near-medieval Irish medical system, complete with a barracks of blaring TVs and a snippy drag queen attendant. As he’s moved from hospital to hospital, marveling at the lack of European doctors and wondering why all this had to happen, we drift along on a cloud of acerbic candor and droll wit. And then it all stops. Just as we reach the point where Gray’s about to provide that transcendent moment, that phrase or narrative phase that moves the storytelling into the arena of true art, it’s all over. Gray’s getting better, he’s pissed and he’s questioning. Unfortunately, we never get the answers.
They don’t come in The Anniversary either. This beautifully written look at familial life, ending with Gray and his son whooping it up on a carousel, is both exhilarating and bittersweet. The immense amount of love Gray had for his kids comes off the pages in waves of warmth and honesty. The observational moments, catching a glimpse of the boy as his eyes engage the ephemera with that simple kind of secret joy, turns a touching piece into something very poignant and elegiac. Similarly, his note to New York, a kind of post-attack pep talk (Gray was apparently devastated by 9/11) radiates with the pure personal poetry that can only come from a man graced with a gift for words. Gray’s talent was never really at issue, but Life Interrupted brings home the point that, with his passing, a great man has moved beyond us.
Had it been simpler, collecting everything and anything that he had attempted over the last few years, there would be more of a reason to rejoice at Life Interrupted‘s publication. Instead, the book feels superficial and surface, an effort to get to know a troubled soul that barely breaks the outer layers of his life. As a memorial, it’s a well-intentioned effort, and as a celebration of Spalding Gray, the book has its memorable and affirming moments. But Gray was much more than an incomplete performance and a couple of essays. He was a man of ideas both written and spoken—and without the oral component, Life Interrupted can only be a partial testament. Thankfully, there are enough of his completed pieces to guarantee his legacy. Life Interrupted is just what it is—a fascinating final footnote.